SALT LAKE CITY — The Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake debuted new intake screening procedures Wednesday in an effort to respond to safety concerns raised by a critical state legislative audit in May.
Starting Wednesday, the facility now employs a third-party private security team to conduct screening of homeless clients who are entering the men's side of the shelter. A full walk-through metal detector was also installed in that part of the shelter, where before only wand metal detectors were used.
"People who are experiencing homelessness are experiencing a lot of uncertainty and a lot of trauma," said Michelle Flynn, Road Home associate director, and in the shelter they "should not have to worry about issues being around them" such as drug use or weapons smuggled inside.
On May 15, the Office of the Legislative Auditor General published a report saying it found "serious concerns about the health and safety of the residents" at the Road Home's homeless shelters in both Salt Lake and Midvale "due to a lax enforcement of the rules."
Auditors said they were specifically concerned about unreliable screening for weapons among people entering the Road Home.
"Staff are inconsistent in enforcing the rules and procedures designed to prevent drugs from entering the facility," the report said. "For example, upon entering the downtown shelter, residents are supposed to have their bags and coats inspected for drugs, and a magnetic wand should be used to screen each person for weapons.
"In actual practice, we observed the screening often consists of little more than waving the magnetic wand over the coat pockets. Sometimes even that step is not done."
On Wednesday, all of the approximately 500 men at the shelter were required to exit the facility by about 8 a.m., after which K-9 police dogs searched it for drugs. They found none, so "we know we're starting with a clean facility," Flynn said.
When the men returned, they were required to undergo a thorough bag search by the new security team and walked through the metal detector, with the possibility of a wand search as a follow-up.
Members of the Utah Highway Patrol were also on hand to help the shelter with the transition and assist security personnel by taking possession of any drugs discovered. As of 1:30 p.m., the new way of doing things had been "uneventful in a good way," said UHP Lt. Beau Mason.
"The first few days especially ... we want to be on site to support them speeding up (the) process while they're trying to establish a new protocol," Mason said.
The third-party security company now being used is expected to cost $25,000 over the first two weeks, which is considered the pilot period for testing the effectiveness of the new screening model, and will likely be priced at a similar rate going forward. That is according to Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, which owns the shelter properties.
Three new walk-through metal detectors for use at the Road Home cost $3,400 each, Cochrane added.
"We are reacting as quickly as we can" to the audit, he said. "The biggest challenge has been getting trained security staff up and running."
Flynn said the Road Home is exploring options for ensuring it can afford those security services long term.
When audit results were presented to state lawmakers in May, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, raised the idea of hiring private security, saying he could sympathize with Road Home staff, who aren't professionally trained in law enforcement, falling short of the letter of the law when screening for weapons.
If the beefed-up security is as effective as envisioned in the next two weeks, the Road Home will update its screening process in the same way on the women's side of the shelter, according to Cochrane.
Flynn said for the two pilot weeks, the shelter will keep data on the quantity of drugs and weapons located during screening and the number of illicit items later found past the screening point, then compare it to prior numbers.
She said the Road Home will also attempt to measure whether the new type of screening leads to a significantly reduced number of clients who choose to stay at the shelter, noting the goal of heightened security is not to serve fewer people.
The heightened security didn't bother James Turner, who lives at the shelter and believes the procedures "will make it safer."
"Let's see how it goes (and) hope for the best," Turner said. "I see nothing wrong with it. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to hide."